We had a great few days at the Hawkesbury Winter Dressage Festival – beautifully presented horses appearing out of the morning mist – so many breeds, colours, sizes, genders and ages of horses and ponies – the common link – dressage! Riders of all ages and experience completed the enjoyment for spectators. Well-fed by the wonderful committee and volunteers who produced a never-ending, constant offering of warm winter recipes and hot drinks, we send our thanks in particular to Karen and Gail for their hospitality. It was a real delight to sponsor the Novice Pony Division and the Clarendon Showground was a wonderful ground to showcase the talents. The trade alley had a brilliant view of not only the arenas but the entry also, which gave Kristie and I the chance to see the competitors closely.
While we sipped our hot coffee, chatted with enthusiasts and gazed upon beautifully presented equines, the announcer kept a cracking pace delivering an informative and lively commentary on the riders and events. Some people are just born to be announcers and he is most certainly one. No one was deterred by Saturday’s fog, which didn’t lift until well into midday and we watched carefully as the pony division took place. Presenting rider, Danni Walliss and the GRP stallion, Charlie Sheen, from Kariz Palomino’s with Champion and meeting all the place getters was definitely the highlight of our visit.
Most horses showed superb concentration and undivided attention to their riders and the task at hand. This triggered my memory and I recalled once visiting the Vienna Riding School – not realising there was a ‘season’ of demonstrations and performances for the public, I arrived at the wrong time of year (no internet in those days!). I ended up having the most rare and special day as I was allowed to watch the young horses during their training sessions. It was a gift to see them trying so hard to meet the tasks requested of them – displays of frustration, tiredness and confusion were quickly responded to as the riders worked hard to ensure each effort or movement asked for, was simple, achievable and positive.
While mulling these thoughts I, as always, found myself hours later deep into the warren of research and studies that help us understand and move forward with knowledge. Weeding through journals, writings and findings I thought I would share with you several that sparked my interest.
The personality of young horses new to competition may be more ‘nervous’ due to lack of experience, but recent research from Cornell University on the influence of breed, discipline and husbandry on personality in horses from Japan, Europe and the US changes a commonly held belief that dressage horses are in general more nervous than other performance horses. They also found no link between a nervous personality, stereotypies (weaving, wind-sucking etc) and misbehaviours – the environment is more significant – and something we can influence.
Behaviour is high up on the list of veterinary conditions that can be a challenge for riders of all disciplines. Hot behaviour and anxiety are common in horses and the possibility that natural oral supplements might be useful, is very attractive. There is a growing number of nutraceutical products for promoting tractability and reducing anxiety in horses, despite a virtual absence of scientific assessment of these products. Certainly, anecdotal reports on the benefits of oral Mg are numerous but two recent university studies from Australia and Canada (Acute Effects of a Single-Dose Nutritional Product on Stress Response and Task Completion in Horses) have confirmed the anecdotes and observations. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0737080616306219
The primary active in the study was Mg, with supporting bioactivity from thiamine. Mg is required for conversion of thiamine into its active form. We were very pleased to provide runners-up with our EzyMag+ supplement that provides the amounts of magnesium and thiamine used in the studies.
The research on proper head and neck positions in horse training is equally lively and a 2018 study from Sweden compared the effect of head and neck position on movement of the back and pelvis of the horse. Undertaken on 7 high-level dressage horses, the authors found that changes in head and neck position can markedly affect the horse’s movement pattern at walk. https://www.slu.se/en/departments/anatomy-physiology-biochemistry/for-a-long-animal-life/effect-of-different-head-and-neck-positions-on-kinematics-of-elite-dressage-horses-ridden-at-walk-on-treadmill/
Riders must not only sit in a correct and balanced posture but must move the body parts independently and appropriately to follow the horse's motion. The rider's position and movements in dressage gaits have been documented in several studies using camera recordings with optical markers, inertial sensor units fixed to the rider's body, camera recordings and accelerometers.
Another research project from Sweden and published this year, examined the movement pattern of horse and rider in different degrees of collection. Between the free and collected trots and the passage, riders sat more upright, changing the flexion of their back and rotation of their pelvis as the horses changed their movements. https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/16148/7/bystrom_a_190516.pdf
And, the development of the flapless saddle that allows closer contact of the rider’s legs with the sides of the horse’s ribcage can significantly improve rider stability.
Combining research, theory and practical experience, good trainers assist riders in fine-tuning the superb art of dressage – and other, ongoing gene therapy research will bring us better ways to treat some of the injuries that dressage horses can suffer. Genes that promote healing have recently been used to successfully treat 2 dressage horses suffering from suspensory ligament and superficial digital flexor tendon degeneration – both structures were completely regenerated within 3 months of treatment and one horse competed successfully in an international dressage competition.
We are lucky to have so much to read that supports the pursuit of performance. I hope these articles are interesting for you. We had such a great time at the dressage, and we look forward to seeing you all at our next outing. Happy riding (and reading!)
Equine Clinical Nutrition
Dr Jennifer Stewart